Every spring, California dons a gorgeous, bright coat. Millions of yellow flowers grow up to 10 feet tall, filling fields and hillsides to the delight of hikers and Instagrammers. But rather than a perfect snapshot, Pascal Baudar sees these beautiful settings as places to find a delicious meal. As it happens, wild mustard – the plant responsible for these flowers – is edible. Its flowers can be used to make a condiment similar to Dijon mustard with wasabi notes, and its leaves can be eaten raw and add flavor to sauces and dressings. Meanwhile, the sprouted seeds are packed with vitamins and minerals and can be enjoyed as a salad!
“People don’t realize the wealth growing right before their eyes,” says Pascal Baudar. “We’re surrounded by fields of wild mustard, thousands of acres of the stuff, and no one is doing anything with it. There are people in Los Angeles living in food deserts who don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. The biggest food waste, to me, is not using the resources we have available.” What’s more, wild mustard is an exogenous, invasive species. It is thought to have been brought to California by Spanish missionaries, and blocks out the sunlight for other plants. Worse still, when its branches dry in the summer, they provide fuel for the wildfires that ravage the state.
Needless to say, when Pascal Baudar comes across a patch of black mustard (Brassica nigra), he doesn’t think twice. However, instead of “forager,” he actually prefers the term “wildcrafter” which encompasses several different concepts such as autonomy, survival, resourcefulness, and respect for nature. “How do I ensure my actions are beneficial for the environment? I focus on the most widely available wild foods, which are really the non-native and invasive plants. And I plant in excess the few native plants that I use, like white sage, black sage, California bay, and black walnuts.”
The Fruits of Nature
Pascal Baudar grew up in Bléharies (now called Brunehaut), a rural town in the Belgian province of Hainaut just a few miles from the French border. This is where he developed a passion for food found in nature. He would scour the forest looking for berries, help his grandfather in his vegetable garden, and collect hazelnuts and dandelions for his grandmother. “People today have lost touch with nature and just shop for groceries in a store,” he says. “But at the time, there was nothing weird about foraging. It was part of life in the countryside. I was introduced to the art of picking wild plants and fruits by the elders in Belgium.”
As a child, he dreamed of becoming a forest ranger. But he was not interested in agricultural studies, and he had no desire to “domesticate plants.” After a year, he turned back to his other passion, art, and studied drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Tournai. In 1986, he followed his first wife to the United States, first living in New York, then in a small town outside Los Angeles. In his job as a graphic designer and artist, he created magazines and brochures, painted film sets, and worked as a fashion photographer.
Paradoxically, it was a computer that pushed him to leave his desk job and get back to nature. In the late 1990s, he was a programmer, a 3D pioneer, and the cofounder of the Cybertown virtual community. It was around the time that Y2K was beginning to worry his colleagues. In preparation for a potential lack of water and empty shelves in grocery stores, he took a survival class focused on collecting wild food. That was the turning point: “I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life!”
The True California Terroir
Pascal Baudar, 61, is now a renowned wild food expert. To achieve this status, he has taken “over 400 classes and workshops” with botanists, survivalists, Native Americans, chefs, and historians, and completed a food preserving course at the University of California. “That’s the base of my work,” he says. “At the store, you can find tomatoes all year round, whereas food in nature is only around for two or three weeks. After that, it changes or disappears completely. You have to know how to preserve it.”
To put his knowledge into practice, the “food alchemist” exclusively ate wild food for a year. The consumption of lamb’s quarters, a variety of wild spinach rich in oxalic acid, gave him kidney stones (“I learned that you need to boil the plant first…”), but the experience was positive overall. He now preserves wild foods – which make up around 20% of his diet during the summer – using traditional techniques such as maceration in vinegar, distillation, and fermentation with natural yeasts, such as those found on the skins of grapes and apples. He has even tracked down books written in Latin and Old French online, and unearthed long-forgotten recipes. His experiments include mugwort beer (a Celtic invention), shrubs (made using a 17th-century technique for preserving fruit, which is now winning over mixologists), and a cooking method involving pine resin once used by Black slaves in the forests of North Carolina.
This extraordinary expertise has made Pascal Baudar a local celebrity; he has given a TEDx conference, published three books (the fourth is set for release on October 18, and will focus on vinegar-based preparations), been a consultant on reality TV shows MasterChef and Top Chef, and encouraged Los Angeles restaurant owners to rediscover the “true flavors of California – and I’m not talking about farmers’ markets, where 80% of the produce isn’t native.” However, interest in wild food has waned, much to his disappointment. The key challenge is helping people to put diversity back into their diets. Native peoples of the West Coast once consumed hundreds of different seeds, but none of them – apart from chia seeds – are sold today. The same goes for potatoes; there are more than 4,000 varieties across the world, yet just a few are available in stores in the United States. “Most things I prepare were sold at markets in the 18th century, but no longer exist in 2022,” says Pascal Baudar, who regularly gives classes on Zoom or at his workshop in Valyermo, in the mountains north of Los Angeles. “It’s important that we don’t forget these flavors – we’ve already lost so much!”